Just as surely as the hippos and gazelles that populate the African savannah in Disney’s 1994 hand-drawn classic The Lion King must take their place in the grand cosmic scheme of things the best Disney animated movies have their own roles in the “circle of life” that the movie’s opening song of the same name written by Elton John and Tim Rice refers to. The films open in theatres and delight kids and adults alike before heading to the home-entertainment sphere where they find everlasting life by being passed down to future generations.
However every once in a while a beloved Disney title gets reincarnated on the big screen in a newer spiffier form. Such is the case with The Lion King itself which arrives in theatres for the first time in 3D in a limited run beginning September 16 before its release on shelves as a special Diamond Edition Blu-ray on October 4.
An audience of Mouse House devotees were treated to the first public screening of The Lion King in 3D at the Anaheim Convention Center’s multi-tiered arena on Saturday August 20 2011 as part of Disney’s fanboy-nirvana D23 Expo. Directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers took to the stage to introduce the screening at one point even offering a spirited rendition of the miniature musical number in which the comedy team of wisenheimer meerkat Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane) and gaseous warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) distract a band of evil minions by launching into a rapid-fire Hawaiian-themed ditty. One of the co-directors even kept the rhythm going by banging on the makeshift drum of an upside-down water jug.
Then the movie began and it’s gratifying to report that Disney’s 3D conversion of The Lion King is an excellent fittingly majestic bit of post-production wizardry. Of course part of what makes the 3D so enveloping is that Minkoff and Allers have already done such an expert job of creating visually layered 2D compositions that the addition of the third dimension is able to stagger those layers in a striking manner. For example the last shot of malicious Uncle Scar’s (Jeremy Irons miraculously delivering the best vocal performance in a cast that also includes the booming baritone of James Earl Jones) “Be Prepared” musical number features an elephant’s skeleton in the foreground and the sight of Scar and his hyena underlings bellowing the song’s final notes atop a craggy mountain in the background. In 3D the viewer can get happily lost in the amplified depth between the shot’s foreground and background action.
Naturally there are also more gimmicky less subtle uses of 3D. Pumbaa’s snout and two horns are repeatedly lunging right at the spectator and the smoke and dust kicked up in the wake of the wildebeest stampede that (spoiler alert for those who have been living under a rock for the past 17 years!) claims King Mufasa’s (Jones) life seemed to hover in the Anaheim arena’s air. Since perhaps the most eye-catching use of 3D is when a flying character seems to soar in the space between the screen and the audience (think of that fuzzy-butterfly-type creature that stole the show in Disneyland’s 3D attraction Captain EO) the winged movements of Mufasa’s avian adviser Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) make for some of the movie’s showiest 3D touches. But they also lead to my one quibble with the 3D here: because the “you can seemingly reach out and touch Zazu” effects are so attention-grabbing scenes that aren’t even dramatically centered on Zazu end up inevitably and distractingly being all about the snooty beaked majordomo.
As fans would expect though the film’s stirring hero’s-quest narrative arc and emotional grace notes register just as strongly in this new format. When young hero Simba (voiced as a cub by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) devastated by father Mufasa’s death crawls under the giant paw of his dad’s corpse a few D23 attendees behind me could be heard blowing loudly into their tissues. That’s another benefit of having this film in 3D: those dark glasses do a great job of hiding your tears.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.